Spike Island

Happenstance: Digital Downtime

Between April and June this year Spike Island was one of three arts organisations across the country that hosted a pair of creative technologists for 12 weeks as part of Happenstance, one of the ACE, NESTA and AHRC ‘Digital R&D for Arts and Culture Fund projects. During their time here Kevin Walker and Linda Sandvik got us all taking photos, making postcards, jamming with design, writing lists, thinking computationally and working with little microprocessors.

The scheme set out to change the way places like Spike Island use technology – but did it? Two months on from the residencies, communications manager Anna Searle Jones considers what the impact has been.

Perhaps counterintuitively for a project that was built around rapid prototyping and short sprints, the most significant impact of the Happenstance residencies for my colleagues and me has been a chance to slow down. This hasn’t come easily for a team that is often trying to do too much in too little time, but the presence of Kevin and Linda here disrupted our workflows and gave us the space to look at the way we operate individually, as a staff team and as an organisation.

Truth be told, there was initially an element of culture shock on both sides: What the $*!@ is an Arduino and what does it have to do with me? Why doesn’t anyone here use Twitter? Whereas I had (probably foolishly) anticipated us all jumping in feet first with overflowing enthusiasm and creative energy, we found ourselves having to pause quite frequently throughout the process, to discuss and reflect, to catch up with one another. But this was good; this is exactly what the project was about, navigating the borderland between these two often disparate worlds. It was in these moments that we learned the most.

For me, the moment that created the biggest shift was a conversation with Kevin and our director Helen on Kevin’s last day here. By that point it had long been clear that our jobs were safe – the residents weren’t going to replace us with robots! – but that our lives weren’t going to be radically improved by the introduction of some gadget. What was also clear, though, was that in the spaces that the residents opened up there were valuable opportunities to reflect. This didn’t necessarily have anything to do with technology itself, but more to do with the differences in mental and physical processes that digital cultures could make us aware of: observation, measurement, orchestration, programming, hacking, code, comments, sources, scripts, languages, affordances, signals, circuits, tools. As the three of us spoke, we became excited by the idea of technology that could provide these sorts of pauses that we’d so benefitted from, slowing us down rather than adding to: perhaps an audio guide, based on a meditation app I’d just downloaded that is essentially silence, to help people encounter works of art intimately rather than bifurcating their senses with sound while they are looking?

This isn’t at all to say that we didn’t get our hands dirty – we’ve got the scars from the soldering iron and Arduinos Blu-tacked to the walls prove it. But the time we spent with Kevin and Linda gave us a base of knowledge and confidence so we can now draw on the resources of digital culture ourselves. The Happenstance project has been an initiation, a challenge, a step back and an inspiration.